The Anglo-Indian in Indian cinema


Recently, the Anglo Indians of Kolkata protested against the centre’s plan to de-reserve the community. Shoma A. Chatterji tells us on how Anglo-Indians have been portrayed on Indian celluloid.

The Anglo-Indians in Kolkata are angry. They claim that the centre does not have the slightest notion of the number of the Anglo-Indians in the city. They are upset because initially, it was decided that this community will be de-reserved. If this were to happen, then the Anglo-Indians would stand to lose their representation in the Parliament where two seats are reserved for them in the Rajya Sabha and 13 in the different state assemblies. Later, PM Narendra Modi declared that reservation for this community would be extended perhaps for ten more years.

Who is an Anglo-Indian? He/She is a person who is born half-British/European and half Indian, uses English as his/her main lingua franca, wears Western clothes and follows British customs and lifestyle. It is mainly the mother who is Indian and the father is either British or European. Some of them got married while others lived together and that is why the Hindu majority had a derogatory attitude towards this community. How have they been presented in Indian cinema? Let us take a closer look.

The Anglo-Indians on Indian celluloid

Few Indian films have explored the Anglo-Indian identity either through character or through theme. Ruth Labadoor (Nafisa Ali) in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978), her mother Miriam (Jennifer Kapoor) and grandmother, are half-English escapees of an attack on a congregation in a British Church by a band of Indian soldiers led by Sarfraz Khan (Naseeruddin Shah.) The girl and the two older women take shelter in the house of a faithful Hindu retainer. They are soon discovered by Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor) who always wanted to marry Ruth. When the news of the fall of Delhi reaches Javed, he joins the mutinying soldiers and is killed in battle. Fifty years later, Ruth dies in England, a spinster.

Pradip Kishen’s Massey Saheb (1986) uses the English language not only as the language of the film, but also as central to the theme. Set in the early 1930s, the film revolves around Francis Massey (Raghuvir Yadav), a dark-skinned, Indian Christian clerk who works for the Deputy Commissioner. Sharing a common language and religion with his British masters gives him a sense of superiority. His ambition to be one of them leads to his downfall.

36, Chowringhee Lane’s time-frame coincides with the 1980s, more than three decades after Independence, when, under a reverse anti-colonial and pro-Indian wave, Anglo-Indian teachers and secretaries were being markedly replaced by Indian substitutes, never mind the effect of this substitution on the quality of English teaching. Miss Violet Stoneham, the protagonist of 36, Chowringhee Lane, is a helpless victim of this pro-Indianisation of teaching staff in missionary schools.

The text is an engrossing study of the cultural ‘outsider’ – a theme that has received artistic attention all over the world, albeit, not much in India. The world has given artistic expression to the Blacks in the West, the Whites in Africa and the aborigines in Australia. Besides the usual exploitative potential in such a theme, the film manipulates its material to effect a multiplicity of semantic nuances. The faint, distant values of a Western civilisation, part of the legacy of colonialism are today wrapped up in one significant tradition – the tradition of the English language. Indian cinema has rarely dealt with people burdened by a dual racial identity. In this sense, 36, Chowringhee Lane was a pathbreaking film.

Stoneham is an Anglo-Indian, a sub-colonial class the British left behind in India. Much of the film has to do with Stoneham being an Anglo-Indian per se, as much as it has to do with her sense of marginalisation in a soil she has grown up to love as her own. It also has to do with her school teaching, where she finds herself isolated and alienated from the mainstream teaching staff, where Anglo-Indian teachers are being replaced by Indian substitutes. The subject that she taught to higher classes – literature – that included Shakespeare – is taken away from her and she is relegated to teaching Grammar to lower classes. The loneliness, isolation of her single life, dotted by the occasional nightmare, takes an about turn one day. And Stoneham’s life changes forever.

Anjan Dutt’s debut film Bada Din, starring Mark Robinson and Shabana Azmi, is the first film after Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane to try and grasp the lives of Anglo-Indians in Kolkata in the changed, crime-ridden, lumpen-filled scenario of the 90s. The link of the underworld mafia with the police, both of which try to brutalise and victimise an innocent bystander, forms the crux of the film. There is a sub-plot of a blooming love between the beer-guzzling, drunken landlady (Shabana) and her much younger tenant (Robinson.) Unlike 36, Chowringhee Lane, this film takes a close look at the seamier side of the Anglo-Indian community. But somehow, the film lacked focus and spirit and unfolded a rather unconvincing story on celluloid.

Basu Chatterjee’s Baaton Baaton Mein depicts the loves, adventures and problems of a middle-class Anglo-Indian family with a down-to-earth sweetness characteristic of the Basu Chatterjee stamp that is neither cloying nor annoying. Lovely songs and lively performances by the late Pearl Padamsee and Ranjit Choudhry made the film an enjoyable experience. But it did not have a successful commercial run.

The latest addition to this roster of films and the most outstanding one is A Death in the Gunj directed by Konkona Sen Sharma. The film is set in McCluskieganj around 1979 when it was almost like a base of Anglo-Indians who had houses there and almost the entire community was made up of Anglo-Indians. The film focussed on an Anglo-Indian family that had gathered for Christmas.

A Death in the Gunj is more about life than about death. It is more about the gunj the name used for McCluskiegunj by visitors and locals. Brilliant performances by the ensemble cast that ranges from famous veterans to absolute newcomers are a treat to watch. Vikrant Massey in his first lead role as Shutu, the failure in the family who everyone treats like dirt, brings the character alive with his silences, his confusion over why they need him when something needs to be done but avoid him or make fun of him at other times, with a twitch of his brow, his smouldering eyes, his pathetic weeping in the corner of his room, slipping under the quilt and pulling it over his head, trying to feel his father by wearing his old sweater he fetches from the cupboard, his simmering anger that rises to the surface and he finds it difficult to restrain is an award-worthy performance.

The cliched stereotypes

Certain cliched stereotypes define the Indian Christian character in mainstream cinema. These may or may not be Anglo-Indian. Mainstream cinema has successfully reduced the Christian minority in India to a convenient monolith – a homogenous entity that does away with their ethnic divisions into Indian Christians, Roman Catholic, East Indian, Anglo-Indian, Syrian Christians and so on. Umberto Eco calls these clichés ‘explicit codes’ – characters depicted in terms of certain outward features. In films featuring one or more important Christian characters, one will find these common elements – the mandatory church, the altar, the priest, the Holy Cross, Christmas or Easter festivals. The characters are projected as caricatures and paper cutouts of real people from the real world who may or may not be Christians. They are projected as:

  • fun-loving, beer-guzzling people who love to sing and dance and have fun,
    drug addicted wasters,
  • rootless people without surnames but repetitive first names like Peter, Jack, Robert or Tony,
    the villain’s henchmen with lots of brawn and no brain,
  • the semi-nude cabaret dancer who is either a dumb blonde fashioned after villain Ajit’s ‘Mona darling,’ or,
  • a beautiful vamp with a heart of gold who invariably falls in love with the hero.

These negative qualities, according to Fareed Kazmi, serve several functions, precisely because they are negative or derogatory. They provide a safety valve for the release of the viewer’s repressed sexuality. The male libido that cannot be satisfied by the ‘sati-savitri’ heroine with conventional moral codes gets easy access to the Lilys, Monas, Monicas, Julies and Ritas through fleshy floor shows fantasized on celluloid.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.